Authors: Susanna Kaysen
Asa, As I Knew Him
Asa, As I Knew Him
Susanna Kaysen is also the author of the novel
, a memoir.
She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, JUNE 1994
Copyright © 1987 by Susanna Kaysen
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
All persons and incidents described in this book are fictional.
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Kaysen,
Asa, as I knew him.
“A Vintage original”—T.P. verso.
PS3561.A893A9 1987 813′.54 86-46186
Author photograph © Marion Ettlinger
For Ceil and Michael
sa enters a room with his arms crossed. He slides in sideways and takes a pose against the wall. He looks as though he is at a cocktail party where he would rather not be. However, if someone enters a room where he is already ensconced (against the wall with his arms crossed, or in his own office in his red chair, long feet on the second rung of his typewriter table), he becomes hospitable: he uncrosses his arms. If standing against the wall, he arches his back and presses his shoulders to the plaster. This movement opens his breast, which is wide and padded, and outlines the flange of his ribs against his shirt.
Asa’s shirts are blue or white. Asa’s eyes match his shirts. On blue-shirt days his blue eyes beam reflected cobalt down paneled hallways; he has the smug aura of a handsome man. White shirts blank out his features so that his face is a white dish holding two dark marbles. On white-shirt days he is expressionless, a life-size photograph of himself snapped at a dull moment.
He is a man in middle age, of middle height and breadth. His ambitions have softened over the years, but without embittering him. He feels the weight of hope sliding off him slowly, easily—perhaps he was never meant to walk uphill. His straight line is all comfort: roses he has mulched and pruned, collars he has frayed in fifteen years at his desk, answering his phone. He no longer imagines himself a twenty-two-year-old. A few years back he realized that what was in the mirror had stopped surprising him. If his jaw couldn’t put a crease in paper, what of it? He has peace of mind. He has two houses, he has three dogs, he has a red swivel chair
at work, sound lungs, a slow heart, twenty-five more years with the roses.
Public Asa number one: the happy man. He uses it on days when he can’t focus, or with people who need to be screened out. He can drop into it, slow bee-buzz of stability and contentedness insulating him from a female photographer with Boston vowels and a murky portfolio. It closes over him, the personality of a man stupider and more stolid yet kin to him—someone he could enjoy if, arms crossed, leaning against the wall, he were to chat with him at a cocktail party. “Nice fellow,” he might tell Fay. “Dull but with a good heart. Told me all about his basset-breeding business. Fucking mopey dogs.”
Asa’s dogs are tall, springy, muddy: a speckled Airedale, and two standard poodles—one black, one brown. “Fighting dogs,” he calls them. They are an extension, or accoutrement, of the happy man. Every evening they jump him and bang him into the oak coatrack by the door. Their smells and tight, dry hair delight him. They are other—not people, but living—and he loves them for their simplicity and sturdy presence. They love him for his warm hands, his shoes smelling of elsewhere, the growls he growls in their stiff ears after dinner, the way he comes home every day at six-twenty and waits to be jumped.
But he wonders if life could be like the life of the happy man. Life without the “slush,” his name for that environment where he has not solitude, which he worships, but isolation. It isn’t sharp, it’s like mud, like February forever. He is slightly beyond the reach of life there. And life—the twilight crackling down on winter days, the book that kept him crouched on his elbow by the bedroom lamp till two last night—is visible, but nonsense.
To counteract this, and as a preventive measure to keep it at bay, he drinks more than he knows is good.
That’s not why. It’s a habit. His habit, after being jumped by dogs and kissed by Fay, is to drink some scotch, two glassfuls to be exact. One quickly and one slowly, while dinner takes shape behind a door. And on the nights when he makes dinner (public Asa number two: the aesthete), one quickly, one while making dinner, one while waiting for dinner to cook. One after dinner. And a refill. Maybe one more before bed. And a little to go to bed with?
He’s thirsty. He thirsts.
He knows the names of all plants that have blue blossoms. He can sing, in a naïve and true baritone, the first movement of twenty Mozart symphonies and all the hymns he learned on snowy mornings in Connecticut more than thirty years ago. He can poach fish, bone chicken, make good coffee. He can splint a dog’s injured leg, build a table, survive a night in the deep, booming woods. He enjoys calves’ brains. He reads books that are of no professional use to him. He is capable of being moved (this means some escalation of his slow heartbeat, accompanied by near tears and a sense of loss, which is sweet) by the music he hears every other week in his hard season seat at Symphony. He likes to be alone.
When he is alone, he is not the happy man, not the aesthete, not, anymore, the well-bred young Cantabrigian, fresh and blond and sure of right and wrong—that person who no longer inhabits the mirror. He is tired. He is a tired man with less hair and energy than before. He daydreams. He puts his feet up and points his beaky nose toward whatever view is beyond the window. Then he signs off.
“What are you thinking?” asks Fay.
Has he let go of life too early? He thinks of his father, a man with a similar nose and dissimilar mien—hard, rocky, dense and unknowable as his native New Hampshire. His father died at sixty-three. Asa remembers his father in middle age, when he, Asa, was solidifying the aesthete at Harvard. His father’s presence was undimmedly strong; but probably, he decides, fathers can never lose that in their sons’ eyes. And he was never sick, he just dropped. If he’d weakened—but he was over sixty and he didn’t falter. Asa looks at the stretch of his legs from chair to windowsill, half in the sun. He is screened, he is cocooned in his disappointment, which lives below his every action and protects him. It’s not a major sorrow, it’s just the normal wear and tear of life on living things.
Some portion of beauty is in the possessor’s knowledge of having it, and this Asa lacks. Still, he is beautiful; women warm up near him because he is fair and rosy and has an expansive chest where dream images of their heads lie, content. From behind he could be twenty-five, his back still a triangle racing straight to his haunches, tapered legs easy to imagine beneath the twill of his pants. He lopes, head forward, brown hands heavy at his sides; he moves as a cat moves in the morning, stalking small prey—no tension or excitement in it, only an impulse to move. He has the proud, large-featured head of an actor, but lacks an actor’s poise. He doesn’t know which profile is his better one. His face is full of flesh—wide mouth, heavy-lidded eyes, cheeks streaming florid to the softening under his ears. At the edge of his face age shows. In the middle, where his eyes tilt Eastern, exotic almonds of New Hampshire–lake blue, he is ageless—a sunburnt, scotch-ruddied Yankee with a blond beard poking through by 11:00
His head seems more ponderous than the body it lives on; when he slides down and tilts his red chair, half closing
his eyes, it falls quickly to rest on the padded back. Thump. His chin points to the ceiling.
If there is a flaw in his appearance it is a lack of vitality. He has some sort of softness, not of musculature but of intention. This has its good aspect; he can, when comfortable, emit sensuousness. But he is so rarely at ease that the impression he usually gives is of sluggishness. There is something reptilian in his diffident, infrequent movements and tendency to bask in whatever sunshine makes its way into his office. That sharp-voiced, untalented photographer was sure he had slept through their interview. He knows he didn’t, but he knows that people have found him intractably unexcitable. He has come to accept himself as such without wondering if the behavior is symbolic. “I’m just an average guy,” he’s said to friends of Fay’s late at night. He hasn’t got friends of his own. He says it with longing, but he doesn’t hear the longing.
So, Asa Thayer. Do you see him? Can you hear the crackle of his shirt sleeve in the morning as he hangs his umbrella on the edge of the bookshelf? Could you have a pleasant conversation with him at dinner; do you know enough to know you don’t want to?
I have always known what was essentially wrong with him; I saw it when I met him. It may even have challenged me. Now, I see the element of challenge; then, as we rose into that atmosphere of pure longing, which was as buoyant as Cape Cod Bay at high tide, and where we bobbed effortless and bathed in anticipation, everything was inevitable. Love as destiny. The problem is, he has no soul.
What makes him interesting is that he knows it. He doesn’t know it’s
, because he has no concept of the soul. But he knows he lacks connective tissue in a fundamental way. In terms of spiritual development, he is at the mollusk stage:
everything is backwards. There is the framework of his life—Fay, flowers, his magazine, all those shirts stacked in the drawer—which is only an external hardness of experience. The inner experience, of slush and diffidence and self-deceit, is gray, gelatinous, amorphous. But Yankees—they think this hardness, these predictable concrete events that compose their days, are the reality. It’s a Protestant misconception. They have no notion of symbol or duality or, most important, passion.